Macron goes on charm offensive in Slovakia and Czech Republic

French president’s visit seen as attempt to prise Czechs and Slovaks from Viktor Orbán

French president Emmanuel Macron and Czech prime minister Andrej Babis in Prague on Friday. Photograph: David W Cerny/Reuters

French president Emmanuel Macron and Czech prime minister Andrej Babis in Prague on Friday. Photograph: David W Cerny/Reuters

 

French president Emmanuel Macron is in Prague on Saturday on the second day of a two-day visit to Slovakia and the Czech Republic, interpreted as an attempt by the French leader to prise the central European countries away from the influence of Hungary’s nationalist prime minister, Viktor Orbán.

The visit coincides with the centenary of the foundation of the former Czechoslovakia. France was one of the first countries to support Czechoslovak independence when the Austro-Hungarian empire collapsed at the end of the first World War. Czechs and Slovaks “divorced” amicably in 1993.

Mr Macron had a working lunch with the Slovak prime minister, Peter Pelligrini, in Bratislava on Friday. The two leaders then attended a “citizens’ consultation on Europe” organised by the leading central European think tank, Globsec. The Europe-wide consultations were initiated by Mr Macron. The Eurosceptical leaders of Hungary and Italy have not participated.

Mr Macron had dinner with the Czech prime minister, Andrej Babis, who speaks fluent French, in Prague on Friday night.

Though Slovakia and the Czech Republic are both in the Visegrad group, known as the V4, they are more nuanced in their approach to the EU than Hungary and Poland, the other two members. Slovakia now holds the year-long presidency of the V4.

A source at the Élysée repeated three times that Czech and Slovak alignment with Hungary and Poland was “not inevitable”.

‘Temptations’

The source said there are “temptations in the opposite direction in these countries, in certain political parties, among certain politicians, but it is not inevitable”. It was “up to France, or Germany or other countries from the so-called west to show they are present, that they are capable of dialogue, that they are not contemptuous and that they do not neglect these countries”.

The Élysée rejected the idea that Mr Macron’s poor relations with Mr Orbán are creating an east-west confrontation in Europe, but said the president will not give up his belief that Europe is divided between his own “progressive” camp and nationalist populists led by Mr Orbán.

Mr Macron has been accused by the conservative Les Républicains and the centrist party MoDem of polarising Europe. Le Figaro’s front page editorial said Mr Macron wants to reiterate the runoff of the French presidential election, when he defeated the extreme right-wing candidate Marine Le Pen, on a Europe-wide scale in next May’s EU elections.

The conservative daily also accused Mr Macron of wanting to “blow up” the European People’s Party, whose members run from Angela Merkel’s CDU to Mr Orbán’s Fidesz.

When Mr Orban celebrated the anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian revolution on Tuesday, he again compared the EU to the former Soviet Union. “Let us reject the control of global governance. Let us reject the ideology of globalisation and defend the culture of patriotism,” he said.

Obligatory quotas

The 2015 migrant crisis forged the Visegrad group. Their refusal to accept obligatory quotas paralysed efforts to reform EU policy, in particular the Dublin Convention, which requires migrants to apply for asylum in the first EU country they enter.

Now the Austrian presidency of the EU has proposed that “obligatory quotas” be changed to “obligatory solidarity”. The Élysée said no EU country can opt out of sharing the burden of migration, that “it would be too easy if they could just write a cheque” in lieu of welcoming migrants. But, the source suggested, they could for example contribute more to Frontex or other EU agencies, support projects in North Africa or train coastguards. In any case, it was essential to “overcome the blockage [on migration] which now poisons the European debate.”

The entire Visegrad group supports Mr Macron’s demand that internet giants pay tax on profits where they are earned. With the exception of migration, Slovakia and the Czech Republic have been receptive to Mr Macron’s initiatives. “Slovakia is in the euro. Slovakia actively supports a certain number of reforms that France is pushing for” including a budget for the euro zone, the Élysée said.

Unlike Hungary and Poland, Czechs and Slovaks accepted the Franco-Spanish compromise that reformed the “posted workers directive”. It had enabled workers from the east to undercut the labour market in the west.

Some French presidents did not visit central Europe “for 20 or 30 years”, the Élysée said. Mr Macron wanted to express “a message of European unity, of French presence throughout Europe”.